An Interview with Sharry Wright of The Feisty Readers Mother Daughter Book Club
The Feisty Readers Mother Daughter Book Club is an eleven member book club - five girls, their moms and moderator Sharry Wright - based in San Francisco, California. Sharry shares the reasons why The Feisty Readers is such a unique kind of group.
Please tell us a bit about your book group.
I moderate several mother daughter book clubs, but the group I’m going to talk about today, the Feisty Readers, is a mother daughter book group comprised of five moms, their now seventh grade daughters and myself as moderator. It’s a super smart, lively, enthusiastic group of thoughtful -
Yes, feisty readers!
I would imagine that some girls might be reticent to speak up. Do they all participate?
Yes, but they are all unique. Some of the girls and some of the moms are very talkative and have LOTS to say, while a few are a little quieter but always contribute a deeper layer of insight to the book being discussed.
I bet your discussions are fascinating!
They truly are…
Is there something in particular that makes your group special to you and that you think might be different from other groups?
There is something extremely special about mothers and daughters reading together and meeting to discuss the book from their different perspectives. Reading together opens up a space for dialogue about all sorts of things and gives the girls and their moms a ‘safe’ ground to talk about so many aspects of growing up and dealing with the world and what life serves up.
Everything from bullying, to understanding someone with learning differences or a physical handicap, to navigating friendships, taking risks, making mistakes, dealing with disappointment, stress and even tragedy inside and outside of the family. It is so true that reading engenders empathy and compassion not only for the characters in the story and others in the world that might be working through some of the same problems, but in our case, I see empathy and understanding strongly reinforced over the generational gap of parent and child.
It sounds like an amazing tool for connecting the daughters to their mothers (and vice versa), and for actually developing their relationships.
How did the group get started?
The Feisty Readers started meeting when the girls were in fourth grade and had been in a book club together already for a year. One of the moms, a writing student of mine, asked if I would consider coming in as a moderator.
They wanted help with selecting quality books that were age appropriate and would make for good mother daughter discussions. They also wanted someone to organize the meetings, freeing them up to enjoy the evening with the girls. I brought my own experience with mother daughter book clubs because I had organized them for both of my daughters when they were in grade school on up through high school. Plus, I have the knowledge, resources and community from my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
Can you tell us about your meetings?
For the past two years, we have met once a month, but this year, with the girls' increased homework load and additional extracurricular activities, we have extended the time between meetings to six weeks. The girls and moms take turns hosting our evening in their homes from 6:30 to 8:00 on a Tuesday night. The hosting girl chooses the book we read from a list of three books I will have sent her a week before the prior meeting and then she comes up with about six discussion questions with the help of guidelines I’ve put together. I email out her questions along with one or two of my own to everyone a few days before our meeting. The hosting mom prepares a light supper. The first forty-five minutes is for socializing and eating, and the book discussion starts at 7:15.
How does the book discussion begin?
I open the conversation by asking who loved the book, who liked it and if anyone didn’t especially enjoy it. Next I ask the hosting girl to read the first page aloud and then have her lead the discussion by asking her questions.
That's great! So the girls get to learn moderating as well!
Yes, my job is to keep the discussion moving and on topic - Not always easy! The conversation can easily start to sidetrack into chatter... - and I make sure everyone has a chance to speak. I want to hear from both girls and moms.
Do the moms ever dominate the discussion? I could see myself doing that!
No actually. Sometimes the moms are more reticent to speak, not wanting to over-power the girls, but it’s the balance of all the voices that make for the best discussions. I also try to bring an interesting tidbit about the author and/or book that isn’t commonly known. At the end of our discussion, the following meeting’s hosting girl announces what we will read next.
Can you tell us about the sort of books you read?
For the past two years, I have offered middle grade novels that lean toward less commercial and more literary, but this year, with the girls in 7th grade, we are venturing into some borderline YA (young adult). I stay away from series and high concept books as they tend to be lighter, less ‘chewy’ and not as well written. I try to pick books with strong writing that I think will make for a good mother daughter discussion and books that will be interesting and enjoyable for both the girls and the moms. I also spend a lot of time culling my list to offer books that I think will appeal to the temperament and tastes of the hosting girl. One of the girls likes adventures, one likes quirkier stories and characters, one especially likes fantasy and two of them are more inclined to serious, realistic stories. I never offer a book I haven’t already read (I promised no dead dogs at our first meeting!) or at least has got high recommendations from my extremely reliable and knowledgeable community of children’s book writers and librarians.
I would imagine you've had some fascinating discussions…
I would say that so far, our most interesting discussions have come from Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, where the prospect of living forever made for a very interesting debate; from Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper, about a courageous, brilliant ten year old girl with cerebral palsy who cannot speak and has no control over her body; and from Diamond Willow by Helen Frost, a novel written in diamond shaped poems about a twelve-year old girl who sets out to prove herself by driving her family’s dog-sled through the Alaskan wilderness and includes the points of view of her ancestors reincarnated as wild animals.
We also had a very lively discussion about Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, where the main character’s plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness and he has to survive on his own for fifty-four days; and from Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker, about two girls with a dark secret buried in the back yard, who try to run vacation cottages on their own for a summer.
Were any especially challenging?
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, was one of our more challenging reads last year, but girls and moms rose to the challenge and had an in depth discussion about Bilbo’s adventures and moral struggle with the ring.
A couple books that have been less successful were The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, because the story was just too complicated and the dialect too difficult to follow; and The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg, because of the somewhat more distant voice and the over-abundance of adult characters.
What books have been the girls' favorites?
I think the two favorite books have probably been See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles and Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Both novels deeply touched everyone in the group.
What books are coming up on your reading schedule soon?
We meet next to discuss Starcrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce, a beautifully written literary fantasy that is a step up in sophistication and subject matter, plus there are some sexual references and allusions to violence that haven’t been present in the middle grade novels we’ve read in the past. Other books I’ll be suggesting this year include an intriguing steam-punk novel, Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve; The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty; The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams; Girlhearts by Norma Fox Mazer; a ghost story, The Other Shepards by Adele Griffin; Bloomability by Sharon Creech; Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan.
Do you have advice for other book club groups?
To anyone who wants to start a mother daughter book club, I’d say do it! It’s fun and rewarding and a great way to stay close to your daughters as they grow up.
People have asked me about mother son book clubs and father son book clubs. I don’t have any personal experience with them but know others who have enjoyed them as well.
I would strongly suggest you get to know your local children’s librarian, check out some issues of Horn Book Magazine - a stellar guide to picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels - and read the School Library Journal’s review of books you’re considering. Choosing books that are age appropriate, well written and have some depth are key to success. I also would urge you to get the girls as involved as possible by letting them help put together the discussion questions and to lead at least part of the discussion.
Thank you so much, Sharry, for sharing The Feisty Readers with us!
Images: The Feisty Readers bookmark and logo, both designed by Sharry Wright